Following a nearly six-week bench trial in New York federal court, a cross-office Latham litigation team emerged victorious on behalf of the Spring Valley National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in a hotly contested case seeking to restore and protect the vote of minority citizens in Rockland County, New York.
Together with the New York Civil Liberties Union, Latham brought the lawsuit against the East Ramapo Central School District in November 2017 on behalf of the Spring Valley NAACP and seven black and Latino voters, alleging the District’s at-large method for school board elections denied the black and Latino residents an equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates under the federal Voting Rights Act.
At-large voting in East Ramapo, in which the entire district votes for all nine seats on the board, enabled the District’s white majority to control the outcome of elections for every seat on the board for more than a decade. East Ramapo’s minority voters have not seen their candidates of choice win a contested seat since 2007. On behalf of the plaintiffs, Latham asked the court to institute a ward system for elections, in which voters will choose each board member from nine wards, at least some of which will contain a majority of black and Latino residents.
On May 26, 2020, US District Judge Cathy Seibel of the Southern District of New York issued a 77-page opinion which adopted all of Latham’s arguments and found entirely for the plaintiffs. The court held that the District's at-large system violated the Voting Rights Act, ordered the implementation of a ward system, and enjoined the District from holding further elections until the proposed ward system is in place.
“Our goal in this case was first and foremost to ensure the entire community of East Ramapo, not just a small group, received the full protection provided by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” stated Latham & Watkins partner Claudia Salomon. “The ruling will establish a voting system that reflects the voices of all citizens of East Ramapo.”
“Judge Seibel’s decision represents a significant improvement for East Ramapo’s students and their families,” said Willie Trotman, President of the Spring Valley NAACP. “Although a majority of board members will still be elected by the district’s white voters, there will finally be an opportunity for people of color to elect candidates who will represent the needs of our communities of color for the first time in over a decade.”
“This ruling at long last offers black and Latinx residents of East Ramapo a fair shot at electing school board members who truly represent their interests,” added NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “As this case showed, and the school board leadership was forced to admit at trial, the white private school community has hijacked the board and rigged its elections for years, while East Ramapo’s students of color have paid the price. Judge Seibel’s decision offers the district a path to represent the interests of the entire community fairly.”
Judge Seibel closed her opinion with a powerful statement that reflected the NAACP’s case: “This ruling may or may not change the way the schools in the District are run. But the purpose of Section 2 is not to produce any particular policy outcome. Rather, it is to ensure that every voter has equal access to the electoral process. For too long, black and Latino voters in the District have been frustrated in that most fundamental and precious endeavor. They, like their white neighbors, are entitled to have their voices heard.”
Notably, the 14-strong Latham trial team was led by associates who handled the opening statements, examined and cross-examined key witnesses, and presented the closing argument. Though the physical courtroom was closed by the end of the trial due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Judge Seibel moved ahead to allow this important case to conclude. On March 24, 2020, Latham associate Corey Calabrese conducted closing arguments remotely from her home while the entire Latham team, Judge Seibel, the plaintiffs, defense and defense counsel, and more than 100 others logged on to the public video conference. Likely the first closing argument in a federal trial conducted by Zoom during the pandemic, The American Lawyer gave a shout out to Latham’s technology team for a smooth proceeding.
In addition to Ms. Calabrese, the Latham associate team which presented the case at trial included Russell Mangas, Rakim Johnson, Thomas Pearce, Elizabeth Sahner, Andrej Novakovski, Abhinaya Swaminathan, Nicole Scully, and Meredith Cusick. Prior to trial, associate Ryan Baasch, with support from partner Roman Martinez, successfully defended a key evidentiary ruling that the District appealed to the Second Circuit. Providing guidance every step of the way were partners Claudia Salomon, Andrew Clubok, Michael Faris, Serrin Turner and Marc Zubick.
Latham associates Cameron Sinsheimer, Elizabeth Parvis, Brittany Davis, Jordan Gratch, and Faust Petkovich were also invaluable members of the team, alongside New York Civil Liberties Union attorneys Perry Grossman and Arthur Eisenberg. And at the heart of the litigation and trial team were senior paralegal Natalie Sagara, paralegal Catherine Correale, trial technology consultant Jon Walton (who seamlessly hosted the closings Zoom), legal secretary Jennifer Felder, enterprise application specialists Abel Lopez and John Villasenor, and the New York Managing Attorney’s Office.